Photo by Ron Simmons
18 scientists' letter to ITA president Dan Cherry

The following letter was sent to Dan Cherry, president of the Inter-Modal Transportation Authority, on August 4, 2001. It was written in response to Mr. Cherry's public comments in which he claimed that there is no evidence that groundwater in the Sinkhole Plain of south-central Kentucky can flow into Mammoth Cave National Park. This issue is significant because opponents of the proposed Kentucky Tri-Modal Transpark believe that the project will pollute the groundwater and cause irreparable harm to the national park and its wildlife. This letter was signed by 18 leading karst geologists and biologists, many of whom have studied the Sinkhole Plain extensively.

Mr. Dan Cherry
Intermodal Tranportation Authority
2325 Airway Court, Suite C
P.O Box 2001
Bowling Green, KY 42102-6001

Dear Mr. Cherry:

The controversy about whether the Graham Spring hydrologic drainage basin spills over into the Mammoth Cave drainage basin needs to be resolved before going ahead with the irreversible land acquisition for the KTT (Kentucky Trimodal Transpark) that your organization is planning to develop on the 4000 acre "Yellow Site" near Oakland, KY, six miles from Mammoth Cave National Park.

If the Graham Spring drainage basin spills over into the Mammoth Cave basin, the groundwater and its biota of Mammoth Cave National Park will be at risk in the event of pollution by spills or seepage from the industrial park and airport. Mammoth Cave National Park is a World Heritage Site, part of the International Biosphere Preserve, and a unique natural treasure. It is without question a valuable national resource that must be protected. Also, it is a regional economic resource that contributes an estimated $100 million per year to the south central Kentucky economy.

You are reported as believing that underground drainage basin spillover is a "theory" and that "no significant evidence exists" to support spillover. The news story about your view appeared in the Bowling Green Daily News of July 20, 2001.

We, the undersigned, are karst scientists in the field of hydrology, geology, or biology. We are familiar with the scientific literature of underground stream tracing , and are generally familiar with the hydrology of the Sinkhole Plain and Mammoth Cave region. We have carried out field studies in karst areas and have evaluated the evidence of studies by other workers.

Four specific pieces of evidence support the drainage basin spillover conclusion. These are:

  1. A dye trace by Quinlan and Ray. Dye was placed in Little Sinking Creek, a well-known karst swallow, during a high water stage. The creek flowed across Rocky Hill-Hayes Road and into a sinkhole where the dye was introduced to the underground system. Dye emerged at two locations, Turnhole Spring on the Green River, which is part of the Mammoth Cave drainage basin, and Graham Spring on the Barren River. This dye trace, which is mentioned in the ITA's published Environmental Assessment on pages 4-36 and 4-50-51, demonstrates there is high stage hydrological communication between the two basins. White, William B. and E. White, Karst Hydrology; Concepts from the Mammoth Cave Area, Chapter 3, pp. 65-104, 1989. See also Quinlan, J. F., R. O. Ewers, and J. A. Ray, Groundwater Hydrology and Geomorphology of the Mammoth Cave Region, Kentucky, The Geological Society of Kentucky Field Trip Guide, 85 pp, 1983.
  2. A dye trace by Quinlan and Ray. Dye was placed in a sinkhole about one mile north of Rocky Hill, KY. The dye emerged at two locations, Turnhole Spring on the Green River, which is part of the Mammoth Cave drainage basin, and Graham Spring on the Barren River. This dye trace, which is mentioned in the ITA's published Environmental Assessment on pages 4-36 and 4-50-51, demonstrates beyond dispute there is a hydrological communication between the basins. (White & White 1989.) (Quinlan et al 1983.)
  3. Multiple dye traces by Quinlan and Ray and confirmed by Meiman. Dye was introduced in the underground Logsdon/ Hawkins River in the Turnhole Spring drainage basin. The dye emerged from Turnhole Spring and from Roaring River/Echo River Spring during a rise of >3m of Logsdon/Hawkins River. The spillover water passed through an overflow route to Roaring/Echo River. These dye traces demonstrate a spillover from one basin to another adjacent to the Graham Spring basin during elevated stages of the Green River pool. Given the three dimensional network of openings, consisting of vertical shafts and horizontal tubes and canyons in the Central Kentucky Karst, this finding is not unusual. (Meiman, J. and M.T. Ryan, The Echo River-Turnhole Bend Overflow Route, CRF Newsletter, v. 21, no.1, 1993.)
  4. A dye trace by Meiman during low stage conditions has demonstrated continuous leakage from the Logsdon/Hawkins basin into the Turnhole Spring basin regardless of river stage. This preliminary finding suggests that continuous leakage between basins is possible. (Meiman, J, C.G. Groves, and S. Herstein, In-Cave Dye Tracing and Drainage Divides in the Mammoth Cave Karst Aquifer, Kentucky, U.S. Geological Survey Karst Interest Group Proceedings, St. Petersburg, FL, pp. 179-185, 2001.)
Dr. Arthur N. Palmer reported to you in his letter dated May 2, 2001, p. 2, his observations related to seepage along beds in caves of the Graham Spring basin: "The Groundwater map of Quinlan and Ray shows the Oakland site to be at least 4 miles from the nearest divide to the north. This might seem a wide safety margin against leakage into basins to the north. But divides determined from piezometric data are valid only at the water table - not for water above the water table. Seepage above the water table is highly concordant with the bedding, because it follows bedding-plane partings, rather than fractures (which are poorly developed in the area). As the water drains downward, it follows the dip (tilt) of the beds, which the geologic map shows to be toward the northwest at Oakland. But very precise geologic mapping with an engineer's level that I have conducted in Cave Springs Cave, near Smiths Grove, shows that the actual dip varies enormously in its local direction and degree of tilt. These variations cannot be detected from surface mapping because outcrops are scarce and elevations used by geologic mappers are generalized from contour lines on topographic maps. Descending water of this sort can travel down the tilt of the strata for several miles. Specific examples have been mapped in Mammoth Cave and other caves of the region.

"With more than 160 ft of depth to the water table around the Oakland site, contaminated water could travel down the local dip (less than 0.5 degree) with a horizontal component as much as 20,000 feet. This is roughly equivalent to the estimated distance to the northern limit of the Graham Spring basin. In other words, contaminated seepage could cross over the rather uncertain divides between basins. Although it is unlikely that such seepage could enter the Mammoth Cave drainage in this way, it has been amply noted by Park Service hydrologists that the divides shift with stage - i.e. the low flow divides do not coincide with those at higher flow levels. Stating that the drainage from the Oakland site is confined to the Graham Spring basin is not appropriate without further dye traces at a variety of flow stages."

Based on our understanding of the evidence, it is certain that hydrologic communication does take place between the basin in which the KTT is sited and an important Mammoth Cave National Park groundwater basin. What is NOT certain are the conditions under which spillover and seepage will occur and the extent of probable risk. Mammoth Cave National Park is too valuable to allow speculation about this issue to remain unresolved.

You are on record in "The Meeting Place" of April 12-26, p 3 as saying about the Transpark, "We enter each phase of this with an open mind. If a credible environmental study were done that said we shouldn't build this type of facility on this particular location we wouldn't do it. It's just that simple."

Therefore, we strongly urge that the ITA undertake a comprehensive, professional, hypothesis-based investigation of the circumstances and characteristics of groundwater movement in the area between the KTT and Mammoth Cave National Park to put all doubt and conjecture to rest . We understand the FAA requires a full-fledged EIS study before proceeding, and that the ITA has agreed to conduct such a study. The rigorous hydrological assessment using piezometric methods, storm pulse data, and modeling of high and low stage scenarios as described in this letter must be a part of that study.


John E. Mylroie, Professor of Geology, Miss. State Univ., (Professional Geologist # 169)

Geary Schindel, Chief Technical Officer, Edwards Aquifer Authority

Ernst H. Kastning, Professor of Geology, Radford University

Tim Schafstall, Project Geologist, U.S. Army

Joseph H. Fagan, Karst Protection Specialist, Virginia Dept. of Conservation & Recreation

William B. White, Professor of Geochemistry, Penn. State University

David Jagnow, Consulting Geologist

Jake Turin, PhD, Hydrologist, Los Alamos National Laboratory

James C. Currens, KY Registered Geologist # 0905

George Veni, PhD. Hydrologist, George Veni & Associates

Robin Cooper, PhD, Biologist, Dept. of Biology, University of Kentucky

Michael T. May, PhD, Prof. Geologist, Asst. Prof. Of Geology, Dept. of Geography and Geology, Western Kentucky University

Christopher G. Groves, PhD, Assoc. Prof. Of Geography, Dept. of Geography and Geology, Western Kentucky University

Kenneth Kuehn, PhD, Prof. Of Geology, Dept. of Geography and Geology, Western Kentucky University

Ouida W. Meier, PhD, Adj. Asst. Prof. Of Biology, Database Mgr. , Center for Water Resources Studies, Dept. of Biology, Western Kentucky University

Albert J. Meier, PhD, Asst. Prof. Of Biology, Dept. of Biology, Western Kentucky University

Thomas J. Poulson, PhD, Professor Emeritus in Biological Scientists, University of Illinois-Chicago, Professor in the Honors College, Florida Atlantic University, 318 Marlberry Ct., Jupiter, FL, 33458-2850, Signed separately

Arthur N. Palmer, PhD, Director, Water Resources Program, State University of New York at Oneonta, S.U.N.Y. Distinguished Teaching Professor (hydrology, geochemistry, geophysics) Signed separately

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